Our English faculty has recently decided we want all our students to remember and understand the relevant metalanguage of our domain. Metalanguage is commonly defined as words or terms which describe language itself. An example of metalanguage is the common grammatical terms such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. However, metalanguage in English is broader than just grammatical terms, there are also dozens of literary terms that give a name to writing techniques, devices and styles which authors and poets have been using for centuries.
Until recently, we have had a haphazard approach to teaching metalanguage in English. Like in most schools, many of the common terms are taught each year, but something was consistently going wrong. We continued to complain that our students were forgetting what had been previously taught. Students were consistently forgetting the definition of hyperbole, let alone how to say it. We decided this was a diabolical catastrophe!
If students can remember the definition of a literary term, they have taken the first step in knowing how to use this knowledge in their own analysis and application. For example, if a student knows the definition of a metaphor, how it is different to a simile, and how to identify it in a text, they have much more chance of using metaphor in their own writing. This can be applied to the vast majority of literary terms, even the really pretentious ones. Such as a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to refer to its whole, like “All hands on deck” or “Can I buy you a glass?”
We are now attempting to create a systematic list of literary terms which we want all English teachers to cover in their respective grade level. Here is a list of some of the literary terms included in our draft learning progression:
Year 7: Alliteration, Hyperbole, Simile, Metaphor, Personification
Year 8: Analogy, Assonance, Cacophony, Extended Metaphor, Symbol
Year 9: Allegory, Anaphora, Foreshadowing, Irony, Parody,
Year 10: Denouement, Deus Ex Machina, Dramatic Irony, Ethos, Satire
Year 11: Archetype, Dichotomy, Euphony, Hubris, Pathetic Fallacy
Year 12: Anadiplosis, Anachronism, Bathos, Diacope, Hamartia
There are multiple benefits when taking an explicit and systematic approach to learning metalanguage across a secondary school environment:
1. Powerful knowledge
Metalanguage has inherent value. There is value in knowing and understanding these terms for their own sake. Similar to any domain, if an individual has an understanding of the crucial and specific vocabulary which make up a discipline, they are one step closer to moving from novice to expert. This is because when we can name something, we have more control over it. If we want students to think critically in English and more broadly in any form of textual criticism, then knowing these literary terms has real value. When students know the definition of motif, they have a better chance of identifying and analysing the motivations which form various texts. Likewise, the most creative forms of literature are only possible when an individual has mastered how to use a vast array of tools and techniques to express meaning. Metalanguage includes the names and definitions of these tools and techniques. Thus, metalanguage is powerful knowledge.
2. Conceptual progression
Our faculty wants to be deliberate in when and why we are introducing each literary term at certain grade levels. I acknowledge that there isn’t a hard and fast rule at what grade level a school should introduce the concept of allegory. However, as knowledge builds upon previously learned knowledge, being systematic in the specific sequence will assist a student’s conceptual understanding. Using maths as an example, learning the concept of square root should normally come before the introduction of Pythagoras. Similarly, it is beneficial for a student to first be aware of the comparative nature of metaphors, similes and analogy so that they can better understand the symbolic nature of allegory. In the future, we want to have a logical progression of when all literary terms are introduced.
3. Long-term memory
We don’t simply want our students to learn this metalanguage because it will give them a better chance of receiving an A+ in their Year 12 English exams. Students ought to have a firm grasp of this language as they go about their lives. We want them to remember and understand what a dichotomy is so that they have a better chance of identifying when someone uses a false dichotomy in an argument. This can only be possible if we require our students to commit this powerful knowledge to long-term memory. The best approach I’ve seen in assisting students to commit content knowledge into long-term memory is consistent and systematic revision. I am not talking about cramming for high stakes exams at Year 12. Rather, it is the commitment to revise content from previous lessons, units of work and even material learnt from previous years. We have recently introduced low-stakes semester exams for the specific purpose of requiring students to regularly recall important domain-specific content. Metalanguage will be included in each of our semester exams, ideally, assessing literary terms learnt in previous years. This will hopefully give our students a better chance of remembering what was learnt before, so they can apply this powerful knowledge in the present and future.